Giving in the Time of Covid
Local nonprofits have never needed more help-or been more needed.
by Cynthia Furlong Reynolds
From the December, 2020 issue
"In my twenty-five years working in the nonprofit world, I've never experienced anything nearing this magnitude," says Mel Drumm, executive director of the Hands-On Museum. "Right now, we're mothballed and wondering when and how we can keep going. I fluctuate between optimism and feeling crushed. I'm sure other nonprofits are on the brink of disaster."
"Saying that Covid-19 was a perfect storm for us is an understatement," admits Helen Starman, chief development officer for Food Gatherers.
Since the pandemic hit in March, local nonprofits have been in crisis mode, struggling to meet escalating needs with shrinking budgets. December is historically the month when they can count on supporters to give most generously. This year, however, many past donors are themselves out of work, on reduced hours or salaries, homeless, or confronting life-threatening illness.
As usual, the nonprofits are calling donors and flooding email in-boxes with seasonal appeals for help. But with the time of giving coinciding with the time of Covid, "we are all waiting anxiously to see what year-end giving brings," says Diana Kern, executive director of the Legacy Land Conservancy.
Food and shelter. Economic relief. Education. The arts and the environment. Based on interviews with local nonprofits, that appears to be the order in which people here are allocating donations.
When the pandemic hit last spring, followed by Michigan's first lockdown, the number of people desperately needing food skyrocketed. According to Starman, 40 percent of the families turning to food pantries were first-timers. Food insecurity among children doubled, due to unemployment and school closings.
Infection-prevention protocols slowed food handling and distribution, and there were fewer hands to do the work. Most of Food Gatherers volunteers were seniors, the group most vulnerable to Covid-19. The food supply chain was uprooted--'restaurants abruptly closed, so Food Gatherers had to find other sources.
"Meanwhile," Starman adds, "we were called upon to distribute record-breaking amounts of food immediately." Smaller pantries, which once served thirty families weekly, now serve 300. Larger pantries have
seen numbers grow exponentially. "Our longtime steadfast supporters continued or increased their giving, but we also saw new donors contribute--the pandemic brought hunger to public attention," Starman says. "We are immensely grateful for the help we've received, but we need to remind people that the needs continue."
At the beginning of the pandemic, the Washtenaw United Way announced a $1 million fundraising goal to meet Covid-'related needs. It was exceeded within weeks. "We're a small organization, but we work big--and we're busier than ever, trying to make sure our community's needs are being met," says WUW president and CEO Pam Smith. In some cases, the United Way's charitable giving turned upside down. Some corporate supporters have shut down or had to cut back and lay off employees. "Now we're serving the very people who supported us" in the past, Smith says.
Demand for mental health services has escalated--"and it's easy to understand why," says Marnie Leavitt, executive director of the Women's Center of Southeastern Michigan. "We're social beings. Anxiety rises when we don't have people around to check out our thoughts and feelings."
Within a week of school closures in March, the center moved its mental health counseling, job coaching, and financial counseling services from in-person to online and phone conferences. Clients with disabilities who had been struggling with transportation issues actually benefited from the changes, Leavitt adds. Thanks to loans and grants from local foundations, the center has been able to serve more people this year than last, and it is planning to open a civil law clinic. Individual donations dropped--"but we attribute much of that to the change in tax laws and election contributions," Leavitt says. She hopes to regain those donors.
SOS Community Services has seen a 30 percent rise in the need for food services, supportive housing, and children's services, reports Rhonda Weathers, executive director. The biggest challenge for the organization, which is dedicated to ending homelessness and promoting family self-sufficiency, now lies in children's services--"the new challenges related to families' isolation."
SOS, like the Women's Center, quickly moved client contacts from face-to-face to Zoom and phone sessions. But the staff is swamped, Weathers says, with "urgent needs for social and mental health services." And with its food pantry closed, SOS volunteers now deliver supplies. "Now we assemble bags after asking about key items: meat, dairy, diapers," Weathers says.
When the pandemic started, SOS sent an urgent request to its donors. The United Way offered $15,000 immediately. SOS also secured a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan. Its fall fundraiser, "Road to Home," went virtual, with a $200,000 goal; donors sent $340,000.
The local Red Cross chapter also saw donations increase as soon as Covid hit. "People know we're first responders for all kinds of disasters," says regional CEO Mary Lynn Foster. But the Red Cross faced a loss of senior volunteers, the closings of traditional blood donation centers, and new health protocols.
Therapeutic Riding is an adaptive horsemanship nonprofit with fourteen horses. "They need feeding, attention, and care, whether we provide services or not," points out executive director Tammera Bollman. "There is no 'lock the door and save the expenses' option for us." Though people who supported them in the past with "medium-size gifts" continue to do so, total donations are down substantially, Bollman says. "There is understandable competition for dollars from organizations that offer life-giving food and shelter." And because they can't guarantee when they'll be able to provide services, "grants requested for new or modified programs have been declined."
Nonprofits responding to health care needs beyond U.S. borders are struggling to secure funding. The pandemic hit donations to the Ann Arbor-based Haiti Nursing Foundation "fairly hard," says executive director Thom Bales. A longtime supporter came to the rescue for now, he says, but "we are concerned about the next eighteen months."
As soon as the lockdown was announced, the seven-member staff of Washtenaw Literacy--plus two Americorps Vista workers and two interns--transformed the agency from an in-person service to a virtual learning portal.
The tutoring group lost huge chunks of revenue when partner jails, schools, and Washtenaw Community College closed their doors. "But foundations are generally coming through for us, and our base of donors has been consistent and heroic," says executive director Amy Goodman. "The pandemic has raised awareness of what we do. We're the only agency addressing adults' educational needs."
Professionals unexpectedly confined to their homes offered their services as tutors. And a recently launched program called LIFT--"Learning Is a Family Thing"--provided a major assist to parents and teachers during school lockdowns, helping low-income families who often have no experience with technology or teaching.
Like other organizations, Peace Neighborhood Center regrouped to respond to pandemic needs. "We had to change the way we deliver our services," executive director Bonnie Billups, Jr. says. "Normally, we have 150 volunteers tutoring students after school in three centers. Now we liaison with schools, work with 100 students in person during the day, offer virtual educational support for another seventy daily, and regularly check in with families."
He says that the community has been "extremely generous." Like several food kitchens, Peace received stimulus checks passed on by people who wrote, "You need this more than we do. I've been amazed and gratified to see how many people came to us and asked how they could help."
As soon as schools closed, the YMCA launched learning labs, redesigning spaces in its center to accommodate social distancing, reassigning and rediscovering staff members' talents. "Our individual donors are different this year, but our membership came through for us, continuing to pay their dues even when our facilities were closed," says Liz Conley, vice president of mission advancement. "Even though we didn't have as many classes or camps for children this summer, our revenue increased by 10 percent, thanks to new sources."
"The term 'hands-on' feels toxic right now," sighs Drumm of the Hands-On Museum. "We lost two-thirds of our budget and staff. It's going to take time to recover--and we may not completely recover until 2024."
Typically, attendance accounts for 75 percent of the museum's revenue, donors 25 percent. But "local donors have stepped up in major ways," Drumm says. As with other organizations, individuals offered matching grants to help during virtual fundraising appeals.
In March, the museum pivoted to virtual programming, designing science kits that are distributed at the Leslie Science & Nature Center. The full-time staff was reduced from forty-nine to eighteen, and thirty part-timers lost their jobs.
"We had worked really hard to build and train the most incredible staff," Drumm says. "We tried and tried to hold onto them, but when our PPP ended, we had to let them go, along with their institutional memory. Every week I worry about how, or if, I'll meet the next payroll."
"We are incredibly grateful to our community for continuing to support us however they are able," adds Leslie Center executive director Susan Westhoff. The center cut staff and salaries and shifted programming to meet stay-at-home educational needs. "Many families have donated $5 or $10 when they register for our free online programs," Westhoff says. However, like other arts and environmental organizations, the science center has lost larger gifts, as foundations and individuals prioritize direct Covid relief--"so we continue to look to any and all options for support."
So does the Michigan Theater. Despite laying off all part-time workers and one-third of staff members--with the rest taking voluntary pay cuts--"we are looking at close to $2 million in lost revenue," says chief development officer Lee Berry. "We remain very grateful for our donors. Unfortunately, this year's giving is not nearly enough, because Covid has changed everything."
Fundraising used to cover 35 percent of the theater's budget; now it has to cover 75 percent. "The theaters were closed for seven months," Berry points out. "That meant no revenue from movies, rentals, or concessions." They reopened at 20 percent capacity, only to close again when infections rose and Governor Whitmer declared a three-week "Pause to Save Lives" in November.
"Some amazing heroes saved the Michigan Theater in 1979, and another group of heroes saved the State Theatre in 2014," Berry says. "We need some new heroes here in 2020."
"Covid has been tough on us," admits Kern of the Legacy Land Conservancy. "Some of our corporate donors and smaller foundations have told us they are shifting their giving to respond to basic human needs."
She's reduced staff and salaries, reconfigured ways to get work done, and shifted its STEM educational programs from streamside outdoor laboratories to virtual science programs and projects.
Pre-Covid, funds had been allocated for three large conservation projects, Kern says, so those won't be affected. "We're circling the wagons. We'll likely weather the crisis, but will we continue our work on pace? No."
The Huron River Watershed Council faces the same funding challenges, as some foundations redirected philanthropic funds. "But others continue to support environmental concerns," says executive director Rebecca Esselman. "Our financial situation was strong going into the crisis--I know that's not the case for all nonprofits." With individual giving "holding steady," she is "anxious--and cautiously optimistic" about the council's big year-end campaign."
The United Way's Pam Smith echoes the sentiments of all nonprofits: "No matter how much the gift--$1 or $100--every donation helps. Smaller gifts add up to a big impact. We all need community members to give their treasure, their time, and their voice, as advocates."
"My concern is that this pandemic is going to continue for many more months," Billups of Peace Neighborhood Center points out. "Can our community continue to support us at this, or an increased, level?"
"Since March, nothing we thought we knew has held true," Starman of Food Gatherers says. "We are all putting into place the best practices we know--but what happens with giving this year is a guessing game."
[Originally published in December, 2020.]
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